Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 28

Thereupon Wiglaf entered the barrow, and was dazed by the bewildering hoard of costly treasures. Filling his arms with such a load as he could carry, he hastened out of the barrow, fearing even then to find his lord dead. Then he flung down the treasures—magic armour, dwarf-wrought swords, carved goblets, flashing gems, and a golden standard—at Beowulf’s feet, so that the ancient hero’s dying gaze could fall on the hoard he had won for his people. But Beowulf was now so near death that he swooned away, till Wiglaf again flung water over him, and the dying champion roused himself to say, as he grasped his kinsman’s hand and looked at the glittering heap before him:

“I thank God eternal, the great King of Glory,
For the vast treasures which I here gaze upon,
That I ere my death-day might for my people
Win so great wealth. Since I have given my life,
Thou must now look to the needs of the nation;
Here dwell I no longer, for Destiny calleth me!
Bid thou my warriors after my funeral pyre
Build me a burial-cairn high on the sea-cliff’s head;
It shall for memory tower up on Hronesness,
[Pg 39] So that the seafarers Beowulf’s Barrow
Henceforth shall name it, they who drive far and wide
Over the mighty flood their foamy keels.
Thou art the last of all the kindred of Wagmund!
Wyrd has swept all my kin, all the brave chiefs away!
Now must I follow them!”

These last words spoken, Beowulf fell back, and his soul passed away, to meet the joy reserved for all true and steadfast spirits. The hero was dead, but amid his grief Wiglaf yet remembered that the dire monster too lay dead, and the folk were delivered from the horrible plague, though at terrible cost! Wiglaf, as he mourned over his dead lord, resolved that no man should joy in the treasures for which so grievous a price had been paid—the cowards who deserted their king should help to lay the treasures in his grave and bury them far from human use and profit. Accordingly, when the ten faithless dastards ventured out from the shelter of the wood, and came shamefacedly to the place where Wiglaf sat, sorrowing, at the head of dead Beowulf, he stilled their cries of grief with one wave of the hand, which had still been vainly striving to arouse his king by gentle touch, and, gazing scornfully at them, he cried: “Lo! well may a truthful man say, seeing you here, safely in the war-gear and ornaments which our dead hero gave you, that Beowulf did but throw away his generous gifts, since all he bought with them was treachery and cowardice in the day of battle! No need had Beowulf to boast of his warriors in time of danger! Yet he alone avenged his people and conquered the fiend—I could help him but little in the fray, though I did what I could: all too few champions thronged round our hero when his need was sorest. Now are all the joys of love and loyalty ended; now is all prosperity gone from our nation, when foreign princes [Pg 40] hear of your flight and the shameless deed of this day. Better is death to every man than a life of shame!”